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Silicon Snake Oil; Second Thoughts on the Information Highway
Clifford Stoll
Doubleday, Toronto, 1995 (April, 1995). 249p. $29.95 CDN ISBN 0-385-41993-7.

Reviewed by Dean Tudor

Geez, Stoll sure knows how to hurt a guy . . . the guy called Internet. Snake oil salesmen indeed.

Unfortunately, Stoll uses several different kinds of false logic to present his case. The basic error he makes is to confuse (probably deliberately) the idea that computers can extend, improve and ENHANCE our current life's activities, with the premise that computers are REPLACING such activities. No person should ever believe that computers will replace ALL existing card games, ALL existing board games, ALL TV shows, ALL shopping, ALL gossiping, etc. If such a person does believe this, then he/she probably deserves to be replaced! Actually, a close reading of this book shows that Stoll rails more against computers than against the Internet. The subtitle is quite misleading.

I enjoyed Stoll's first book, The Cuckoo's Egg, which described how he tracked down East German hackers in 1986. It was first-rate: I stayed up all night to read it. However, his next book is a real snoozer: I could barely stay awake. The style is self-effacing; the rant is rambling. And he has a real problem dealing with the Internet: he cannot stay focussed. By that I mean, he cannot sign onto his computer account and do whatever work he has to do - he wanders through Net sites, downloads files and graphics, and generally just plays around. BUT, THAT'S HIS PROBLEM, not mine. So, he begins to attribute his weaknesses to the rest of us, and suggests that we are all like that. His lack of focus pervades the book. There are many non sequitur paragraphs, and when he has reached a minimum number for a chapter, he ends the chapter and begins another. His editor should have made him concentrate more. He claims to have written this book with pen and paper (I would have used pencil and paper), with a typewriter, and with a word processor. But, he must also have used a tape recorder: how else to explain his stream-of-consciousness prose? Actually, he complains that computer usage is a direct result of our 45 years' exposure to television (both use the cathode-ray tube), but he is himself directly affected by this exposure. You can see it in his writing style.

Hey, I haven't really said anything about the book's contents yet, have I? A few years ago, when Ryerson Polytechnic University grudgingly doled out e-mail accounts to select students who grovelled, a journalism major came to me begging to get an account. I asked him why he needed it? He said he didn't want to be left out. And, this is the whole story of the appeal of the Internet: not being left out of the global village. And, that means having to put up with all types of people, who Stoll cannot stand. He abhors yahoos who scream and yell on the Internet or don't know what they are doing. "Computer and online services frustrate virtually everyone," he writes. So why does he write a book? Most of what he says can be reduced to a cogent magazine article. But then he wouldn't get paid as much, nor would he be eligible to get scores of after-dinner gigs at several grand apiece.

What he should have written is a book called How to Cope with Sensory Overload, beginning with some hints on how to learn programs. That's the problem area: getting people to RTFM [Read the Fucking Manual, standard Netspeak]. But that wouldn't sell books. Stoll is not very helpful in his harangue. Indeed, he sets up roadblocks by playing games. He wants us to find out which sections of the book were written by pen, by typewriter or by computer. But, he tells us the answers in code; if we want to know, we've got to crack the code. I don't need such games in my life. The bibliography has a list of books, with authors and titles but no other identification tags. Again, a game; we are supposed to find out which ones are in bookstores (and presumably still available for sale), which ones are in libraries (and presumably out of print), and which ones are available for free on the Internet. For me, that was an easy game. But, there are better books out there on the Internet, including The Online World by Odd de Presno, not mentioned by Stoll. He does list Jerry Mander's Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television (which is a first-rate book), saying that it also applies to computers. Well, of course, this is nothing new - although he passes it off as a new idea; monitors are TV sets, and with Mosaic, you can get video and audio just like TV.

Stoll proclaims: "Life in the real world is far more interesting, far more important, far richer than anything you'll ever find on a computer screen". That's pretty obvious, and I agree. But, so what? Why doesn't he scream about watching TV, which occupies the average person 16 hours a week! He's already written that computers and television are alike, so why not rant at both? He doesn't.

It was fashionable to tout the Internet a mere few years ago. Writers who didn't know much about it, raved about it. Now, it is fashionable to badmouth the Internet. Writers who DO know how it works, loudly proclaim how bad it is. Why? Because these writers have been shunted aside on the highway. The student has succeeded the teacher, and there is overcrowding.

Stoll writes about the Internet, but it is not MY Internet. His main topics are Usenet (with lots of noise and senseless garbage talk), chatlines (lots of screaming), shopping by e-mail, and playing games. Sure, all of these add clutter. Sure, I'd like to get rid of them. But, I'm not going to let the Internet take the heat, not MY part of the Internet; not the direct e-mail, not the mailing lists, not the web sites with text files.

I'm not even sure when this book was written. Some of it is already out of date (you cannot nail a moving target like the Internet). Figures relate to January, 1994. He mentions Mosaic, but not its successor Netscape (the commercial and faster version of Mosaic). He doesn't even mention Lynx, which is a text program for FTP/Web/Gopher access to files that I use. What's wonderful about it is that there are no silly graphics to slow down access. I can get my stuff in minutes, since it is only text. Surely, he must know about Lynx. Using Lynx would solve a lot of his complaints.

His predictions are astute: networks will be part of the school system, there will be hundreds of video channels over cable, the Internet will be a commercial endeavour, there will be government regulation of growth and content, the major lines will be part of the telcos. These are inevitable as the Internet matures, I agree. Unfortunately, he doesn't follow up on any of these with any kind of meaningful discussion of the pros and cons, or what we can do about it all.

Snake Oil? Well, I think Stoll himself is trying to sell us some snake oil. He's not really warning us of difficulties or cautioning us to be more exact while on the Internet. He's not very helpful at all in our dealings with computer networks. Instead, he wants us to abandon ship, like the rats that we are. Get off the Internet, get a life. He's just trying to sell us the idea that we should stay away from computers so that only he and his friends can have it all to themselves. And, that's the worst kind of elitism.

 

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